Jury sees child pornography allegedly possessed by NXIVM leader

Albany Times-Union/June 14, 2019

By Robert Gavin

New York — Jurors at the trial of Keith Raniere on Thursday were shown sexually explicit images of a 15-year-old girl that the NXIVM leader allegedly kept in his so-called "executive library" in Halfmoon.

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn allege Raniere was 45 when he began a sexual relationship with the 15-year-old girl, a Mexican national.

An FBI agent displayed the images to the jury of eight men and four women outside the view of observers in the packed courtroom of Senior U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis in Brooklyn.

The now 58-year-old Raniere, clad in a royal blue sweater over a white shirt, talked with his lawyer, Marc Agnifilo, as the images were shown during the testimony of FBI forensic examiner Brian Booth. The witness explained the process of gathering the images while being questioned by Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Hajjar.

FBI agents seized the images on March 27, 2018, from a residence on Hale Drive in the Knox Woods townhouse development in Halfmoon, where more than two dozen top NXIVM members, including Raniere and the teenager depicted in the images, lived.

Metadata on the photos indicated they were taken in November 2005, when the girl was 15 and Raniere was 45.

Federal prosecutors have identified her as the youngest of three sisters from Mexico — all of whom had sexual relationships with Raniere. All had abortions; the oldest of the three sisters has a child with Raniere.

The middle sister testified two weeks ago about being confined for nearly two years to a room in her family's home on Wilton Court, allegedly at the direction of Raniere. She also testified that she knew her younger sister had sex with Raniere when the girl was 15.

The age of consent in New York is 17.

The girl later became a first-line member in Raniere's "master/slave" sorority, which was known as "The Vow" and Dominus Obsequious Sororium (DOS), Latin for "Lord/Master of the Obedient Female Companions."

Prosecutors say the woman later performed oral sex on another unsuspecting "slave" who Raniere had blindfolded, ordered to strip and tied to a table.

During cross-examination, Raniere lawyer Paul DerOhannesian grilled Booth about the process used to gather the images — questioning him over the chain of custody, the condition of the camera and other details.

The agent allowed it was conceivable such images could have been backdated.

The trial is now in its sixth week. Prosecutors are expected to rest their case Friday following the completion of testimony from FBI Special Agent Michael Weniger, who began testifying Thursday afternoon. Weginer is the "case agent" handling the investigation into Raniere, the purported self-improvement guru known within NXIVM as "Vanguard."

The agent walked jurors through emails and a history of paranoia in NXIVM. Among other efforts, the agent said, NXIVM members would alert Raniere whenever unknown cars were spotted in Knox Woods.

He said officials took efforts to collect bank records of the company's perceived "enemies," including reporters and editors at the Times Union and Metroland, the now-shuttered Capital Region alt-weekly. Those names and those of prominent politicians were found in the basement of NXIVM president Nancy Salzman's home on Oregon Trail in Halfmoon, located near Knox Woods.

Weginer noted that in late November 2017, just weeks after the New York Times published a front-page investigation into DOS, the NXIVM leader began using ProtonMail, an encrypted email service based in Switzerland. He said Raniere forwarded emails he was using on Yahoo to the ProtonMail account.

The agent said NXIVM's director of operations, Clare Bronfman, a former co-defendant of Raniere who pleaded guilty in April, paid upward of $400,000 to a Canadian firm, Canaprobe, to dig up the bank records of the journalists, as well as longtime NXIVM foe and cult tracker Rick Ross and Seagram's liquor tycoon Edgar Bronfman, the father of Clare and her sister Sara, both NXIVM members.

Emails shown in court revealed that in 2009, information received from Canaprobe took a circuitous digital route from NXIVM legal liaison Kristin Keeffe to senior NXIVM Emiliano Salinas to a third person in Mexico, Federico Valenzuela Pena, before arriving with James Mulvaney, a private investigator in New York City.

The agent told Assistant U.S. Attorney Moira Penza the information was sent from Albany to New York via Mexico to "skew" the source of the information: NXIVM.

The bank records, Weginer testified, turned out to contain false information. But Raniere and NXIVM "absolutely" appeared to believe the records were real, he said.

Raniere and Keeffe used coded language to describe the information — describing it as a food "recipe" cooked by a "Mexican chef" that could be "tasty."

In another email, Keeffe scolded Salinas for including Raniere in an email.

"NEVER SEND TO KEITH. EVER. PLEASE DON'T FORGET THIS AGAIN. XO," Keeffe wrote under the alias "Oak Haven." Salinas — called The Beacon — created his email account for the communications just a day before the information was exchanged, emails showed.

Among the observers in court Thursday were Toni Natalie and Barbara Bouchey, former Raniere girlfriends who were later unsuccessfully sued by NXIVM in lengthy legal battles. Also in attendance was former NXIVM member Anthony Ames, the husband of Sarah Edmondson, who ran NXIVM's Vancouver chapter. She later went public to the New York Times about her experience in DOS, including the fact that she had been branded with Raniere's initials.

Raniere is charged with racketeering, sex trafficking, forced labor and conspiracy. The racketeering charges refer to underlying acts that include alleged possession of child pornography and sexual exploitation of a child.

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